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What Is Causing Florida's High Rates of Premature Births?

CenteringPregnancy is a group prenatal care program at the UF Health Women's Center that has been shown to decrease premature births. (Courtesy of UF Health Women's Center)
CenteringPregnancy is a group prenatal care program at the UF Health Women's Center that has been shown to decrease premature births. (Courtesy of UF Health Women's Center)

In one week, 561 babies are born premature in Florida.

The long-term health problems a premature baby has to fight include cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities, breathing problems, blindness, and hearing loss, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

March of Dimes, an organization dedicated to decrease preterm birth rates across the United States, gave Florida a “C” in its 2015 premature births report card.

Last year, Florida received a “D,” but the upgrade is no cause for celebration, said Dr. Karen Harris, chair of the program services committee for the Florida Chapter of the March of Dimes. Harris is also an obstetrician and gynecologist at the North Florida Women’s Physicians at the North Florida Regional Medical Center.

“Our preterm birth rate did not change very much, and the way the number is calculated completely changed,” Dr. Harris said. “This is a more accurate estimate now.”

The National Center for Health Statistics transitioned to the obstetric estimate as the new standard to reflect the time of conception more precisely. Instead of relying on the difference of the last menstruation of the mother and the birth, the birth attendant estimates the gestational age of the baby based on completed weeks.

Florida has had some decrease in the rate of preterm birth over the last decade, Dr. Harris said, but it is not happening fast enough.

She said some of the areas with the highest rates of premature births are in the Florida panhandle and the north central area.

Another concerning statistic in Florida is the high number of African American mothers who have preterm deliveries, Dr. Harris said.

“Someone who is African American has twice the risk of having a preterm birth of someone who is white, and that is even accounting for socioeconomic status,” Dr. Harris said.

In Florida, the percentage of preterm births for 2014 was 9.9 percent, and the rate for African American mothers was 13.3 percent, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

“That is a real problem,” Dr. Harris said. “We are trying to figure out why that is.”

She said there are many questions that research has yet to answer, but there are things mothers can do, like getting prenatal care early, to decrease the chances of a preterm birth.

“There is a link between uninsured mothers and premature births,” she said. “We think part of that link is potentially not having access to prenatal care.”

Dr. Dikea Roussos-Ross is the medical director of CenteringPregnancy at UF Health. In this program, expectant mothers at the same point in their pregnancy receive prenatal care in a group setting.

“CenteringPregnancy has shown to decrease the incidence of preterm delivery in some studies up to 30 percent,” Roussos-Ross said.

This program works by increasing the compliance with prenatal care appointments, giving the expectant mother a support group and increasing the time they have with their doctors.

“Instead of having 5 to 7 minutes with your doctor, you really have an hour-and-a-half to two hours where you can discuss all aspects of your pregnancy in a group setting,” Dr. Roussos-Ross said.

March of Dimes gave Dr. Roussos-Ross a $25,000 grant to partially fund the program that started earlier this year. She said organizations like March of Dimes are advocates of this kind of program because of the result they’ve had in decreasing premature births.

“Women are actively participating in their prenatal care,” she said. “It’s really an opportunity to get a lot more education during your pregnancy.”

Sofia is a reporter for WUFT News who may be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news @wuft.org